A Riverside police officer keeps his distance while performing traffic control in the village’s downtown during a peaceful Black LIves Matter demonstration on June 19, 2020, one of many that followed the death of George Floyd in May. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Last August, following a wave of civil unrest and peaceful demonstrations nationally and locally in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police, Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel and President Ben Sells invited community members to an hour-long conversation about policing, local police policies and how police can better serve citizens.

In the months that followed, Weitzel set about exploring ways to internalize what last year’s protests against police violence and brutality and in support of Black lives sought to address. 

Late last year, the Riverside Police Department formally adopted the NAACP and Illinois Chiefs of Police 10 Shared Principles for police reform and the U.S. Department of Justice formally certified that Riverside’s police department’s use of force policy was in full compliance with federal regulations. 

Weitzel himself, meanwhile, has continued to seek state and township partners to create and fund mental health resources that can be called upon as an alternative to police in some situations.

“I didn’t want the conversation we had in August to look like it was just rhetoric,” Weitzel said. “I wanted to prove that our department was following up.”

The NAACP/Illinois Chiefs 10 Shared Principles affirms foundational values, like respect for all persons, rejection of discrimination, supporting diversity in police staffing, reinforcing de-escalation training and tactics and developing police relationships with communities of color.

The 10 Shared Principles also seek to build trust “through procedural justice, transparency, accountability and honest recognition of past and present obstacles.” The principles define “procedural justice” as “fairness, voice (i.e., an opportunity for citizens and police to believe they are heard), transparency and impartiality.”

While he believes Riverside police already adhered to those principles, Weitzel said it was important to formally adopt them. Moreover, he said those principles will be printed on posters which will placed in high visibility areas inside the police station and the principles will also become part of the department’s field training manual for new officers.

“New officers have to swear to that and we’ll share them with our civilian employees as well,” Weitzel said. “At first glance this looks basic, but intent is to reaffirm these principles publicly and internally.”

Weitzel said there’s no excuse for a department to argue against adopting the 10 Shared Principles, even if police leaders believe their officers already adhere to those principles.

“I don’t think that answer is good enough,” Weitzel said. “The climate is different in America now. Every chief knows that. To say they are already incorporated falls short. They need to back it up.

“To me, it’s more of a culture. Culture is a big deal and you have to foster a culture of training and ethical and moral policing.”

Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel

Weitzel briefed elected officials on the department’s adoption of the 10 Shared Principles, use of force certification and other matters at the Jan. 21 meeting of the Riverside Village Board.

In a follow-up interview, Weitzel said the Ten Shared Principles will be reinforced by incorporating them into routine training for both sworn and non-sworn members of the department.

Asked what he thought of the fact that more than two dozen sworn police officers from other agencies have been identified, so far, as having either attended or participated in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S Capitol in an attempt to halt the transition of presidential power, Weitzel said if a Riverside officer had been identified as having participated, that officer would have faced consequences.

“That officer would have been immediately placed on administrative leave and I would seek their termination,” Weitzel said. “They took an oath. From officers in the smallest agency to those working in the biggest cities, everybody swears an oath, and defending the Constitution is in that oath.”